When I turned, I found myself facing a tall guy with longish dark hair pulled back at his neck, wearing a worn blue hoodie and jeans. He glanced at me quickly – his eyes were green, and deep set – barely seeming to register my face.
‘Sorry,’ I said, although it wasn’t my fault: he was the one creeping up behind. But he just nodded, as if I’d owed him this, and continued to the beach, sliding his hands in his pockets.
I hardly needed another sign that it was time to turn back. As I went to do just that, though, I heard a voice from behind me. ‘See? I knew you couldn’t resist me!’
I turned, and there was the guy from the boardwalk, still holding his cup. The redhead and the girl with pigtails were now standing by the keg, watching disapprovingly as he walked toward me. I was suddenly nervous, not sure how to respond, but then I had a flash of my mom at our kitchen table, surrounded by all those graduate students. Maybe I didn’t know what I would say. But I knew my mother, and her techniques, by heart.
‘I can resist you,’ I told him.
‘Well, of course you would think that. I haven’t begun my offensive yet,’ he said.
‘Your offensive?’ I asked.
He grinned. His smile – bright, wide, verging on goofy – was his best trait, and he knew it. ‘I’m Jake. Let me get you a beer.’
Huh, I thought. This wasn’t so hard after all.
‘I’ll get it myself,’ I told him. ‘Just point the way.’
What’s your problem?
I didn’t know how to answer this. Not when Jake first asked it, as I pulled away from him, gathering my shirt around me, and stumbled over the dunes back to the path. And not as I walked back up my dad’s street, trying to shake the sand out of my hair. My lips felt full and rubbed raw, the closure of my bra, hurriedly snapped, digging into the skin of my back as I let myself in the side door, shutting it behind me.
I crept upstairs, down the dark hallway, glad to hear nothing but my own footsteps. Finally, Thisbe was asleep. After a long, hot shower, I put on some yoga pants and a tank top, then settled into my room, opening my Econ textbook again. But even as I tried to focus on the words, the events of the night came rushing back to me: my dad’s sharp tone, Jake’s easy smile, our fumbled, hurried connection behind the dunes, and how it suddenly all felt so weird and wrong, not like me at all. Maybe my mom could play the aloof, selfish bitch. But that was what I’d been doing: playing. Until the game was up. I was a smart girl. Why had I done something so stupid?
I felt tears fill my eyes, the words blurring on the page, and pressed my palm to my face, trying to stop them. No luck. Instead, they were contagious: a moment later, I heard Thisbe start up again, followed by the sound of someone – Heidi, I knew – coming down the hall and a door opening, then closing.
She kept on for an hour, long after my own tears had stopped and dried. Maybe it was the guilt I felt about what I’d done that night. Or that I just needed a distraction from my own problems. Whatever the reason, I found myself stepping out into the hallway, then walking to the door to Thisbe’s room. This time, I didn’t knock. I just pushed the door open, and Heidi, her face ragged, streaked with its own tears, looked up at me from the rocking chair. ‘Give her to me,’ I said, holding out my arms. ‘You get some rest.’
I was pretty sure Your Baby: The Basics didn’t say anything about sunrise walks on the boardwalk as a cure for colic. But you never knew.
At first, I wasn’t sure Heidi was going to let me take her. Even after the hours of crying, and her clear and present exhaustion, she still hesitated. It wasn’t until I took one more step toward her and added, ‘Come on,’ that she let out a big breath, and the next thing I knew my sister was in my arms.
She was so, so small. And writhing, which made her seem all the more fragile, although with all the screaming she had to have some strength to her somewhere. Her skin was warm against mine, and I could feel the dampness at the base of her neck, the hair wet there. Poor baby, I thought, surprising myself.
‘I don’t know what she needs,’ Heidi said, flopping back into the rocking chair, which then banged against the wall. ‘I just… I can’t… I can’t listen to her cry anymore.’
‘Go to sleep,’ I told her.
‘I don’t know,’ she mumbled. ‘Maybe I should –’
‘Go,’ I said, and while I didn’t mean for my voice to sound so sharp, it worked. She pushed herself out of the chair, sniffling past me and down the hallway to her room.
Which left me alone with Thisbe, who was still screaming. For a little while, I just tried to walk her: in her room, then downstairs, through the kitchen, around the island, back to the living room again, which quieted her a bit, but not much. Then I noticed the stroller, parked by the door. It was about five when I strapped her in, still hollering, and began to push her down the driveway. By the time we got to the mailbox, twenty feet farther, she’d stopped.
No way, I thought, pausing myself and looking down at her. A beat passed, and then I watched her draw in a breath and start up again, louder than before. I quickly began pushing her once more, and after a few turns of the wheels… silence again. I picked up the pace and turned out onto the street.
By the time we got to the business district she was asleep under her blanket, eyes closed, face relaxed. Ahead of us, the boardwalk was deserted, a brisk breeze blowing across it. All I could hear was the ocean and the stroller wheels clacking beneath my feet.
We’d walked all the way to the Last Chance Café before we finally saw another person, and even then they were far off in the distance, just a speck and some movement. It wasn’t until we came back up on the orange awning of Clementine’s that I realized it was someone on a bike. They were in a spot where the boardwalk opened up to the beach, and I watched, squinting, as they went up on their front wheel, hopping for a few feet, then easing back down, spinning the handlebars. Then they were pedaling backward, zigzagging, before suddenly speeding forward, banking off a nearby bench, then down again. The movements were fluid, almost hypnotic: I thought of Heidi in the rocking chair, and Thisbe asleep in the stroller, the subtle, calming power of motion. I was so distracted, watching the person on the bike, that it wasn’t until I got right up to him that I recognized the blue hoodie, that dark hair pulled back at the neck. It was the same guy I’d bumped into on the path hours earlier.